Ideas Series: Get a Brain Morans

Although the photo predates the movement, this image has become for blog-reading US Democrats and the Left an iconic image of ‘Tea Party’ opposition to everything Obama, every Democratic Party legislative initiative, and all socially ‘progressive’ ideas.

It is (apparently) from a counter-demonstration to an antiwar protest held at a Boeing missile factory at St. Charles, in the Southern state of Missouri, on March 23, 2003. The image includes elements that appear to typify this movement. The background in the two known photos of the man show several US flags, and in one a yellow ribbon, usually signifying support for US troops, is visible.

Several people are dressed in casual wear, but the main character’s starred head bandanna (white stars on blue field), his retro moustache and long back hair, and the beginnings of a beer belly readily identify him as a stereotypical redneck. That uncomplimentary term designates white residents of rural or small-town America, whose necks are presumed to be reddened by the elements while engaging in outdoor work, typically on the farm, at least in the past. Rednecks are considered by middle-class city dwellers and suburbanites to be uneducated, ill-informed, provincial, chauvinistic, and authoritarian. This man is an up-to-date redneck, however, and his skin looks untanned and smooth. The redneck tag is sometimes extended to include men with outdoor working-class city jobs, and rather than being rejected by those so-called, the term is sometimes embraced by people whose identity centres on patriotism or religious conservatism.

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The man in the photo carries two inelegantly hand-lettered signs, one of which says in large letters “Get A BRAIN! MORANS,” and the other, “GO USA.” The latter, often shouted by sports fans at international competitions such as the Olympics, is hauled out to jingoistic effect on political occasions. But it is the large sign that has made the photo an enduring icon, because of its presumed misspelling of the word ‘morons.’ It hardly needs explaining why misspelling a word on a large sign denigrating your opponents’ intellectual capabilities would make you an object of ridicule. In this instance, the emphatic slogan above, ‘get a brain!’ compounds the gaffe.

From the same rally there is a photo of another, similarly dressed man, carrying a sign saying: HEY BOEING ignore these other idiots and keep the missles coming! there are still too many iraqis! GO USA!

Over the course of the decade, pro-war counter demonstrators regularly appeared with misspelled and ungrammatical signs at anti-war rallies. Once the right-wing populist, anti-Obama, anti-government ‘Tea Party’ movement came into being after Obama’s election in 2008, such signs could be seen in numbers. Although the Tea Party demonstrators have been organized, abetted, promoted, stitched into a movement by right-wing media and by such secretive billionaires as the Koch Brothers, and then treated as news by Rupert Murdoch’s relentlessly partisan, obscurantist, and propagandistic Fox News, such eruptions masquerade as a spontaneous, patriotic grass-roots movement. One may speculate that the desire for an image of the ‘authenticity of the folk’ accounts for an emphasis on hand-written and locally generated signs. Misspellings add to the suggestion of proud but heart-felt irrationalism that allows the media, with varying degrees of condescension and glee, to foreground the Tea Party and to claim it as stemming from the anti-elitist heartland, the ‘real America,’ a kind of righteously raging beast that must be placated. The excuse of the mob offers the appearance of urgency to a persistent campaign by plutocratic elites to permanently capture the wealth of the nation—now at the greatest divide between rich and poor in a century—and to subvert democratic institutions while posing as vox populi. Public-sector unions have been a major target, if not of the heartland, then of its string-pullers in and around government, as well as of the financial elite of any party. Most prominent among these are the schoolteachers’ unions around the country, made up of people who might have improved your spelling, had you paid attention in class.

Despite the strange fact that the full-bore attacks on teachers’ unions and public education have been joined by millionaire hedge-fund Democrats (the likely reasons are too complex to go into here), the Democratic Party still represents a large percentage of the educated, urban middle-class work force. For that group, and particularly for left- and Democratic-leaning political bloggers, misspelled signs are ‘low hanging fruit,’ as they were characterised by a blog that collects them. Some other examples (some of them professionally printed), drawn from among many online photos, include:

  • THANK You FOX NEWS FOR KEEPING US INFROMED, yes GOD Bless America

  • Lets keep the Tea, Dump The Polititions

  • VOTE FOR A TERRIOST OBAMA

  • Birth CERTiFicT Where OBAMA Where

  • MY FURTURE IS IN YOUR HANDS!!!’

The search for a scapegoat for the global financial crisis, which all too obviously can be laid at the door of major financial institutions, particularly in the US and the UK, has brought us a plethora of such obfuscatory social and political targets, including the immigrant working class (economically essential but physically somewhat distinct), as well as ‘big government’, environmental regulations, government healthcare programmes, pensions of retired workers, and salaries and benefits of public-sector employees—now that the poor, a common scapegoat in the past, have been made invisible. At the same time, the fiscal crisis of states and municipalities precipitated by the crashing economies has allowed conservative governments and legislators to claim bankruptcy at the hands of selfish public employees and unsustainable public projects while justifying bailouts and tax breaks for the tottering banks, the rich, and corporations as the only route to fiscal solvency. In these cases the voice of the folk, prompted again by the ubiquitous right-wing media and party operatives, bursts forth in local constituency ‘town meetings’ and on protest signs, at noisy demonstrations that are lavishly hyped and covered by the media.

That the inarticulate masses represent the truth of society is a conviction of long standing. Populism has long inspired a certain mangling of ‘proper’ language by would-be leaders, including working-class and union leaders but also, more recently, the silver-spoon faux-populist US politicians Dan Quayle and George W. Bush and the socially less exalted Sarah Palin and the aspiring US congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, all of whom are not only appreciated despite their trampling on linguistic and intellectual niceties, not to mention denying established facts, but beloved for those habitual failures. European history can supply many such examples (and we might want to complicate the issue by recalling the hostility of aristocracies like the English nobility to the literacy of ‘clerks’). Given the demographics of populism, those who identify with politicians flaunting their poor language skills are well represented.

Confronted by the tide of images of linguistically ill-formed and factually ignorant protest signs (typified by the signs demanding ‘Don’t Steal from Medicare [the government health program for elders] to Support Socialized Medicine’, and ‘Get government out of medecine [sic]’), the college-educated and rationalist sectors can be roused to attend rallies whose core premise is that those other people are indeed frightening, and frighteningly tribal. Signs at the mock rally held last year by political comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear—actually a counter-rally—often hinged on matters of spelling, linguistic usage, and complexity of thought.

With a Democratic administration in power, although one disappointing to many, the Left joins the merely supercilious in deploying playfulness, parody, and humour, sometimes in unscriptedly spontaneous fashion, against its opponents.[/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 16, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks

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